News of Michael Jackson’s death came as a shock. But then… not really. I remember having conversations with a friend years ago, before Jackson’s life completely unraveled in a frenzy of tabloid headlines, about how he would manage impending old age. It was unimaginable that a man so in love with his own youth and talent could possibly endure the challenges of physical and mental decline that were inevitable. He would either become even more eccentric than he had already been – hole himself up like Howard Hughes and trade his public fame for lingering mystery – or he would die, perhaps by his own hand. There didn’t seem any other options for this tragic and enigmatic creature. So the shock was more of the nature of “oh… now.”
Like many, I was a fan who lost the faith and left the fold as his behavior and appearance became ever more bizarre. It was painful to watch someone who had touched us with an extraordinary talent drifting into apparent madness and, perhaps, criminality. So I was startled – and grateful – to hear something this evening during the first rush of memorials on the news that made me rethink what I thought I knew about him. None other than stalwart Sue Simmons – a blowsy fixture of local TV news in New York City – speaking unscripted about Jackson said (I’m paraphrasing), “he tried to become a character – neither black nor white, male nor female, young nor old – that would appeal to all people, who he hoped would follow him as he tried to make the world a better place.” I had never heard this before and it made him make sense for the first time. More than that, it made him seem almost tragically heroic. But not a hero. Any grandiose motivations pale into delusion when we consider the bad things he may have done. Sadly, that will be his epitaph as much as his music.